The Big Ten dropped a bombshell on the college sports world on Thursday by cancelling all nonconference games for fall sports and moving towards conference-only seasons. Football drew most of the headlines, but that decision had a massive impact on volleyball as well.
John Cook had already been proactive by altering his team’s nonconference schedule, cancelling a trip to TCU and pushing back an event with Stanford, Kentucky and Louisville that would have included a trip out west for the Huskers this year.
Cook knew the Big Ten was discussing a conference-only schedule, and while he was preparing for a full season Nebraska was ready to adjust to whatever ruling the conference made.
“If everything holds true, what’s happening, but we have to be ready to adjust,” Cook told Hail Varsity back in June. “Even if we only can play UNO and Creighton in the nonconference, we’d be happy with that and feel like it could prepare us.”
Unfortunately, Nebraska won’t even get those matches. A match against Omaha was only a hypothetical, but Nebraska was scheduled to take on the Bluejays at CHI Health Center Omaha and that is a massive loss for the Huskers for multiple reasons.
First of all, Creighton is coming off a 25-6 season that included a 17-1 mark in Big East play. The Jays fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a five-set thriller to No. 7 seed Minnesota. Creighton lost its setter and libero but returned four of its top five kills leaders, led by Big East Freshman of the Year Keeley Davis. Creighton would have been a great test for the Huskers before heading into conference play.
The last time Nebraska played Creighton in that arena, the Huskers fell behind 2-0 before rallying to win in five sets in front of 14,022 fans. Creighton’s Taryn Kloth and Nebraska’s Mikaela Foecke put on a clinic in outside hitter play, combining for 51 kills. The atmosphere was electric and the level of play was outstanding. That match was a tremendous display of the sport of volleyball in a state that really appreciates the sport. The schools weren’t going to be able to fill the stands like that again had the game still happened, but even so it would have been a great match for volleyball fans to watch on TV.
Omaha was slated to host the NCAA Championship (Volleyball’s final four) this year as well, and Cook was excited about giving his team an opportunity to play in that building before the postseason. Many of Nebraska’s players got the chance to play on that court in 2018, but the Huskers also have some young players in key roles that would have benefited from that experience.
Nebraska also loses out on its annual nonconference events like the Ameritas Players Challenge, which allows Cook to work through any early season struggles or rotation questions the team might have before heading into league play.
Nebraska will have to work in a new back-row player after Megan Miller transferred to Northwestern; senior walk-on Hayley Densberger and freshman Keonilei Akana will be in the mix, or perhaps Jazz Sweet finally plays all six rotations. Riley Zuhn will look to earn a bigger role as a sophomore as well with Capri Davis and Anezka Szabo both transferring out of the program. Cook also bolstered his team’s depth at middle blocker with the addition of Missouri grad transfer Kayla Caffey and highly-touted in-state recruit Kalynn Meyer; Callie Schwarzenbach is going to have a battle on her hands.
Now the question becomes what will the Big Ten schedule look like? Cook told Hail Varsity that the conference’s coaches had already received their league schedules. Does the Big Ten stick with what the’ve sent out already or do they tear them up and add matches?
The conference already weighted the league schedules toward more regional play. That means Nebraska could see the likes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois at least twice. Those matches would help make up for the hit the schedule took by losing the Creighton, Stanford and ether Louisville or Kentucky matches. Cook mentioned there was going to be a lot of Wednesday-Sunday match weeks; the Big Ten has carved out a nice space for its volleyball on Wednesday nights on BTN and maintaining that seems like a priority.
In the past Cook has said he feels like winning the Big Ten is even more difficult than winning a national championship because it consists of 20 matches in 10 weeks as opposed to six matches in three weeks. The Huskers will almost always have a Final Four contender (and usually more than one) to deal with in Big Ten play and in most years, at least half the conference qualifies for the postseason. The grind is real in a normal season, and it could be even tougher this year without those nonconference matches to ease into the season.
There are still plenty of details to iron out, but if we are able to have a volleyball season at all in 2020 it will be unlike any we’ve seen.